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Saudi Arabia's national flag is seen at the Khoba frontline border with Yemen January 27, 2010. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) (FAHAD SHADEED/REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia's national flag is seen at the Khoba frontline border with Yemen January 27, 2010. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) (FAHAD SHADEED/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

Should Canada kill the Saudis arms deal? Add to ...

Officially, the challenge to Canada’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is a legal matter, but at its heart it is a political one. Indeed, it’s hardly an accident that the law professor who is spearheading the case, the University of Montreal’s Daniel Turp, is a former Bloc Québécois MP and Parti Québécois MNA.

The plaintiffs hope to legally invalidate the contract to sell armoured personnel carriers to the Saudi regime. But it feels as if this fight is unfolding in the wrong arena.

It’s entirely legitimate to have reservations about selling weapons to a country with a less than sterling human-rights record. There are ample reasons to criticize the manner in which the Saudis are waging a proxy war in Yemen. And in the era of Islamic State, it’s understandable to be concerned about the possibility of arms sold to friends some day finding their way into less friendly hands.

But Saudi Arabia is also a longstanding trading partner and, in a Middle East populated almost entirely by unsavoury regimes, one of Canada’s allies.

If the aim is to press the Saudis on human rights or on curbing the spread of extremist theology, surely that is better achieved through dialogue and criticism, rather than through a refusal to do business. And if Canada doesn’t sell personnel carriers to Riyadh, someone else will. Opponents of the deal are really saying that Canadian companies shouldn’t be in the arms business at all, beyond NATO allies. That’s a legitimate and arguable position, but it would come with real costs in the form of thousands of Canadian jobs.

Canada has been a purveyor of things like guns, bullets and guidance systems for a long time. We are a member in good standing of the Western alliance. Our defence industry, which employs thousands, has intricate commercial ties with a neighbouring country that has the most powerful military in the world.

The Canadian arms industry should never be above criticism. Nor should the government be as needlessly secretive as it has been with this purchase. And trade with some countries does sometimes deserve to be blocked, whether for reasons of human rights or national interest. But in this instance, opponents should be making their case in the appropriate forums: the court of public opinion, and Parliament.

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